Verian Dunbar, a school reform consultant, used to visit many D.C. principals each week and noticed something special about Angela M. Tilghman at Myrtilla Miner Elementary. Tilghman always knew which of her teachers were doing a good job, and which needed some help.
She was a slender woman with a soft voice, and some visitors mistook her gentleness for weakness. But Dunbar figured out quickly what was really going on.
"She didn't have to yell," said the representative of the Success for All elementary school reform effort. "She used the data to strongly suggest that her teachers do certain things. She would say to those who weren't doing the program correctly, 'We're not saying you are doing it wrong, but look at what the data says.' "
That quiet persistence and Tilghman's success at inspiring loyalty in her staff, bringing better teaching to her students and opening a new building have led to her receiving the Washington Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award for 2004, D.C. school officials said.
"In expanding the educational opportunities for her students, Ms. Tilghman has displayed great energy and resourcefulness in bringing about many innovative programs at Miner Elementary school," said Ralph H. Neal, assistant superintendent for student and school support services.
One measure of her success is that she has been Miner's principal for more than 12 years, an usually long tenure in the D.C. schools. As in many big city districts, D.C. school superintendents do not last long and their replacements often think the best way to improve failing schools is to move principals around.
But nobody has tried to move Tilghman, 48, for a long time. She has even managed to keep her school functioning while an entirely new building was going up behind the old one. The new school opened in January 2003, and Tilghman is often sought out by other principals who want to know her secret for maintaining learning standards and her sanity during such a project.
Dunbar said Tilghman always looked for extra time to train her staff to teach children from predominantly low-income families. Although some principals would be satisfied with the occasional day of training scheduled by the school district, Tilghman would schedule extra training sessions on weekends and before or after school, Dunbar said.
Teachers knew that as hard as Tilghman asked them to work, she was putting in much longer hours than they were. Her friend Gloria Henderson, a retired principal, said when she tried to get Tilghman to relax with a nice Saturday lunch, "she always declined these enticing invitations so that she could be at her school to support Saturday programs for her children." When the children went home, Henderson said, Tilghman "would stay for several hours to plan and prepare new instructional opportunities for them."
Tilghman grew up in the neighborhood served by Miner Elementary, which is two blocks south of Benning Road in Northeast. It is an area of faded rowhouses and lots of poor families, many of whom have come to depend on Tilghman. "She is more than a principal, teacher, adviser, mentor, social worker, psychologist, favorite aunt and neighbor," said Diana Winthrop-Gray, columnist for the biweekly newspaper the Common Denominator. "She is the glue that has kept this changing neighborhood together."
Teachers praise Tilghman's efforts to solicit their ideas as she makes decisions for the school. Her students, such as sixth-grader Adam Middleton, are impressed with the many arts programs Miner offers when other schools are cutting back on painting, music and drama. "She always takes us to the Kennedy Center, she always has treats, and she never forgets to acknowledge Perfect Attendance, Citizenship and Honor Roll," Adam said.
Both teachers and students mention her skill with computers -- she has taught classes in new technology. Many also say she has provided a consistency and hopefulness at Miner that so few other inner city schools have been able to achieve.
Stacey Barlow Green said she has taught 15 years in the District under five principals, and it is Tilghman who stands out. She has "proven to be a great motivator, with a commitment and knack to bring out the potential in others," Green said.